As events got underway on Friday 24 June at this year’s Birmingham European Festival, the atmosphere in the buzzing Festival Hub was noticeably different from the three preceding days. Where a mood of apprehensive optimism had prevailed before, now anxious faces engaged in animated discussions, asking urgent questions about the future.
Few among the artists, attendees, organisers and others gathered there from across the continent will not be directly affected by Britain’s decision to leave the EU. Nevertheless, in keeping with the spirit of collaboration, co-operation and creativity in which BE Festival was conceived, directors Isla Aguilar and Miguel Oyarzun delivered a rousing speech, urging us to meet the news by coming together to show the world that a better Europe was possible.
Programmed well in advance, none of the shows at BE Festival 2016 were directly themed around the EU referendum, yet its presence could be felt in almost every aspect of the event – like a capricious ghost looming over the festivities, showing us Europe’s past, present and possible futures in a bid for us to understand the impact of Thursday’s decision.
Situation with an Outstretched Arm – Oliver Zahn’s ‘performative essay’ on the history of what has come to be known as the ‘Hitler salute’, explores the complex and inextricable connection between art and politics. In deconstructing the gesture in paintings and in practice, it demonstrates how aesthetics and symbolism play a vital part in the establishment of ideologies and in how we interact with them. At a time when both art and criticism are under financial threat, it feels like a bold statement asserting their importance in teaching us to identify and analyse power mechanisms.
Meanwhile, Xavier Bobés’ Things Easily Forgotten tells a story set against the backdrop of Franco’s Spanish regime, which lasted until 1975. With emboldened far-right extremists making news across the continent again, angered by mass migration and an increasingly internationalist outlook, it’s a potent reminder of how recently such groups have held real power. And how easily it could happen again if we fail to work together to prevent it.
In very different ways, Teatro Sotterraneo’s Reload and Aldes’ In Girum Imus Nocte both hold a mirror up to Western society today. Satirising the constant distractions of a labyrinthine Internet, the hilarious Reload looks at our restlessness, reduced concentration spans and decreased capacity to delay gratification when fed a constant stream of information and entertainment. With the Internet serving as the major battleground upon which the EU referendum campaigns were fought, Reload accidentally seems to highlight some of the problems with the debate: is it possible to really have a serious conversation or follow ideas through properly when fighting against a barrage of memes and soundbites?
Elsewhere, CollettivO CineticO’s Hamlet stands like a warning, showing us a kind of election by TV-style talent show with local contestants competing to be crowned as Shakespeare’s Danish Prince.
Presenting a far bleaker view of our world, In Girum Imus Nocte speaks to the frustrations of modern living that have caused many people to rail against what can feel like oppressive limitations in our society. Dancers move aimlessly, jerking and twitching like clockwork automatons in a world of grey and black, against a repetitive, ticking soundtrack. Occasionally, their drab routines are punctuated by outbreaks of mob fury, hedonistic celebration and bouts of deep, exhausted sleep. In such a world, change in whatever form it’s offered will inevitably be seized upon by some.
Perhaps the single hottest (and most inflammatory) topic in Britain’s EU debate has been the issue of immigration, particularly in relation to the ongoing Syrian crisis. An Wei Lu Li’s pointedly titled Democracy draws attention to the plight of refugees through a series of large-scale paintings located around the city.
The centrepiece of this city-wide ‘exhibition’ is Leviathan – a giant picture of a curled body on the ground in Centenary Square, only really visible in its entirety from the privileged vantage point of the Library of Birmingham terraces. Down on the ground, meanwhile, passers-by unwittingly trample across the body, gradually causing it to fade away. In a democracy, the work suggests, we’re all responsible on some level for the policies our leaders enact, even if we choose to ignore them.
Picking up on the same theme, W. H. Auden’s ‘Refugee Blues’ made an appearance in Los Bárbaros’ Things We’d Love to See on Stage. Though essentially a random collection of unrelated things, it also included “a politician doing politics” – which turned out to be a maneki-neko (beckoning cat figurine). “He’s not under Europe, but he’s probably pro-China, so we don’t know how that will work out,” joked one performer. The show took on a particularly poignant dimension when an opportunity for the audience to choose something that they’d like to see on stage themselves prompted a callback to an earlier item on the list. Previously, “maps” of Europe, Britain, England and Birmingham had been created out of piles of compost. After a member of the audience suggested “unity”, cheers erupted when another came forward to combine the maps into one pile.
No single performance could have been better suited to the occasion, however, than Power to the People, a project themed around democracy, developed by a handful of last year’s artists through the BE Mix initiative – a brief, scratch-style residency that takes place after the festival each year. In the lead up to the show on Friday, performers on either side of a debate had been canvassing for votes for their respective ideas – one a piece directed by a single person, the other collaboratively devised by a team of five.
As with the referendum, the results of the vote on the day itself were pretty close, but ultimately the Five Directors Project won it. Next came questions designed to identify viewers’ assumptions. Is democracy really the best form of government? Does theatre at BE Festival confirm its audience’s biases? Congratulations to us, we collectively decided that the only power system that most of us have ever known was superior to any other. But since we also decided that the art we see should challenge us, the company went on to spend half an hour trying to prove us wrong…
If there’s one thing that BE Festival makes clear, it’s the case for even the most lighthearted of creative endeavours as something with the power to prompt reflection on the important issues in our lives.
With no sign of an end to austerity yet in sight, and the likelihood that Brexit will make it harder for British artists to collaborate with their continental neighbours, one can only hope that it continues to be able to serve this function.
For more on BE Festival, visit www.befestival.org